Tag Archives: Lee Marvin

The Stranger Wore A Gun

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 5, 2015

The Stranger Wore a Gun—Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor; George Macready, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Joan Weldon, Alfonso Bedoya, Clem Bevans (1953; Dir: Andre de Toth)

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One-eyed Hungarian director André de Toth had gotten off to a good start in westerns, with the sultry Ramrod (1947), followed by writing on The Gunfighter (1950) directed by Henry King.  He then followed with six westerns with Randolph Scott, of which this is one.  With a cast also including Claire Trevor and early bad guy roles for Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, this could have been great, and it isn’t.  The story and writing (by Kenneth Gamet) just aren’t strong enough.  But if you like De Toth’s work, Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor and Lee Marvin, you nevertheless have to see it.

The title could be attached to almost any western, a genre where all the strangers wear guns.  During the Civil War, Lt. Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott) spies for Quantrill in Lawrence, Kansas, in preparation for the notorious guerilla raid on that abolitionist-sympathizing town.  Disgusted by the indiscriminate slaughter and Quantrill’s callous indifference to the infliction of death and devastation, he drops out, but his reputation follows him.  After the war, Travis is a gambler on a riverboat when he is recognized and attacked.  A mysterious figure saves him with a thrown knife to the back of an attacker.  Sympathetic fellow gambler Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) sends him to Prescott, Arizona Territory, to Jules Mourret.

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Jules Mourret (George Macready) meets Jeff Travis (Randolph Scott).

Prescott is a lawless mining town, where two rival gangs raid the Conroy stage line and commit other depredations.  As Travis arrives (he’s the titular stranger with a gun), the territorial capital is being moved to Phoenix in reaction to Prescott’s lawlessness.  Mourret (George Macready), another former Quantrill man, turns out to be the leader of one of the two gangs and Travis’s knife-wielding rescuer from the riverboat.  Using the name of “Matt Stone,” Travis tells the Conroys that he’s a Pinkerton agent sent to help them.  The attractive Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon), daughter of the line’s owner, is obviously drawn to him.  And Travis finds himself once again working for the bad guys and deceiving decent people, just as he did for Quantrill.

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Josie Sullivan (Claire Trevor) and Travis (Randolph Scott) renew their acquaintance.  And Dan Kurth (Lee Marvin) displays his skills and determination.

Josie Sullivan shows up in Prescott to ply her trade as a gambler and to see how Travis is doing.  She tells him he’s wanted in Louisiana for the riverboat killing.  Conroy is fairly successful at hiding the gold on his stages, but when Mourret’s men Dan Kurth and Bull Slager (played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine) kill a friend while trying to beat out of him information he doesn’t have, Travis’s allegiances shift again.  He tries to set the two gangs against each other, with some success.  Nevertheless, he has to shoot it out with Kurth; Lee Marvin traditionally doesn’t have much luck against Randolph Scott (see Hangman’s Knot and especially Seven Men From Now).  Mourret and Travis ultimately fight it out in a burning building (see Scott in burning buildings in Hangman’s Knot, Riding Shotgun, and Ten Wanted Men), and Travis wins.  Shelby Conroy is crushed at Travis’ deceit and betrayal, but it turns out Travis really wants Josie anyway.  And she lied about him being wanted in Louisiana.

There’s a lot of plot stuffed into only 83 minutes; it doesn’t develop organically, it feels at the end as if there are a number of loose ends, and there are a number of elements we’ve seen before. Neither the Travis nor the Sullivan characters is entirely admirable, with their shifty allegiances and casual deceit of friends and innocent people.  But it is a good cast and the film is ultimately worth watching.  Produced by Harry Joe Brown, with Randolph Scott as associate producer, in color; shot at Lone Pine.  It was also shot in 3-D, like Hondo and Gun Fury, during the brief period in the early 1950s when studios were experimenting with that new presentation.  That accounts for the occasional lunge toward the camera with a burning torch, gun or spear.

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A gleefully evil Bull Slager (Ernest Borgnine) enjoys the movie’s 3-D effects.

Claire Trevor (Stagecoach, Allegheny Uprising, The Desperadoes, Best of the Badmen) was coming to the end of an excellent Hollywood career.  Her performances in Stagecoach, Dead End, and Key Largo (an Oscar winner for her) are great ones.  Here she seems to be better than her material.  Joan Weldon never really balances her as a competing romantic interest in this film, although Trevor plays the sort of character who normally shouldn’t win in the end.  Weldon will show up to better effect in 1957’s Gunsight Ridge, with Joel McCrea.  Lee Marvin was starting his memorable career as a heavy (Hangman’s Knot, Seven Men From Now, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and Ernest Borgnine regularly showed up as a bad guy as well (Johnny Guitar, The Bounty Hunter, Vera Cruz).  Two years later they both turn up as bad guys working for Robert Ryan in John Sturges’ excellent Bad Day at Black Rock.   Alfonso Bedoya’s performance as the Mexican head of the gang rivaling Mourret’s bad guys seems fairly broad and stereotypical now.  If you’re a Scott fan, you’ll be delighted by the appearance of his beautiful dark palomino Stardust and his worn leather jacket, both of which show up here.  Although the directing in this film is nothing dazzling, De Toth went on from this to make the quintessential early 3-D horror movie:  House of Wax.

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Paint Your Wagon

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 29, 2015

Paint Your Wagon—Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, Harve Presnell, Ray Walston (1969; Dir: Josh Logan)

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Of course Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood are naturals for westerns, but for musicals?  Not so much.  So the question for Paint Your Wagon is:  Is it more a western or more a musical?  Despite the fact that it has Broadway star Harve Presnell (as gambler Rotten Luck Willie) on hand to sing the major musical number “They Call the Wind Maria,” Presnell’s big-time voice simply emphasizes that Marvin, Eastwood and Jean Seberg (whose singing is dubbed but still not impressive) are not really singers themselves.  The musical numbers mostly aren’t terribly memorable or well sung, but this isn’t very satisfying as a western, either.

By 1960, Alan Jay Lerner (the lyricist) and Frederick Loewe (the composer) were the apparent successors to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II as the pre-eminent team turning out musicals for the stage and movies (My Fair Lady, Gigi, Brigadoon, Camelot).  Josh Logan, as a director, was known principally for his work in big stage and movie plays and musicals.  By the end of the decade, though, large-scale movie musicals were becoming an endangered species despite the success of Funny Girl (1968), and Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly represented the last gasp of the genre.  This is perhaps the least memorable of all the movies made of Lerner and Loewe musicals.  And the American public seemed to be losing its taste for such things in any event.

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Pardner (Clint Eastwood) and Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) make a discovery.

In the gold country of northern California, statehood seems imminent, so it is about 1850.  A landslide kills a Michigan farmer making his way to the goldfields and injures his brother (Clint Eastwood).  As Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin) and others prepare to bury the deceased brother, they discover gold in the grave.  A mining camp (No Name City) springs up on the site, and Rumson and the brother, known only as Pardner, become partners in a gold claim.

Jacob Woodling (John Mitchum), a Mormon with two wives, is passing through; they are enthralling to the exclusively male inhabitants of No Name City.  The wives don’t get along and the Woodlings need money, so Jacob is willing to auction off the younger wife, Elizabeth (Jean Seberg), with her consent.  An inebriated Ben Rumson buys her for $800, and she agrees to the arrangement if he’ll build her a permanent cabin.  He does.

Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg, and Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon, 1969.

The newly married couple and their Pardner (Clint Eastwood, Jean Seberg and Lee Marvin).

In order to divert unwanted attention from his wife, the only woman in the vicinity, Rumson leads an expedition to hijack a stage carrying six “French bawds.”  They set up an establishment in No Name City and the settlement grows like a weed.  While Rumson was gone, Pardner and Elizabeth formed a relationship, and Rumson, Pardner and Elizabeth become a more or less comfortable threesome.  But matters are complicated by the arrival of a preacher, and by the Fentys, a farming family recovering after a near-death experience while trapped in the mountains.  They are staying at the Rumson cabin and are religious people who would be horrified at the unorthodox relationships in the household.  So Ben moves (temporarily) to accommodations in town, while he corrupts the Fenty’s son Horton (Tom Ligon), who takes readily to liquor, gambling and loose women.

[Spoilers follow.]  Meanwhile, Ben and Mad Jack Duncan (Ray Walston) tunnel under the establishments in town in order to get the gold dust that falls through the floorboards.  With Rumson and Duncan having honeycombed the town with tunnels, those tunnels and the town itself begin to collapse during a large bull vs. bear sporting event.  Rather than rebuild, most of the inhabitants of No Name City decide to move on, including Ben Rumson.  Elizabeth has always been adamant that she wants to stay permanently with her cabin, but after the influence of the Fentys she is no longer comfortable with her former domestic arrangements.  But Pardner stays with her, and with the departure of Rumson her situation becomes more conventional.  His name turns out to be Sylvester Newel, although he is still addressed as Pardner.

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The cast and director behind the scenes during filming; Alan Jay Lerner chats with Clint Eastwood.

The play was first produced on Broadway in 1951 and took eighteen years to make its way to film.  It was not thought to represent Lerner and Loewe’s very best work.  The film is said to bear little relation to the original play, however.  After the success of several musical films in the 1960s, most notably My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), producers went looking for other projects to make, and the idea of Paint Your Wagon was revived for consideration.  The original plot, about an inter-ethnic love story, was discarded as being too dated.  The only elements retained from the original were the title, the Gold Rush setting and about half of the songs. In the play, Elizabeth has a very minor role, Pardner does not even appear, and Ben Rumson dies at the end.

There was a lot of talent at work on this film, with a big budget that unintentionally got bigger as production went along.  In addition to director Logan and the Lerner-Loewe team, the principal writer in adapting Lerner’s screenplay was Paddy Chayefsky.  Additional music is by André Previn, and Nelson Riddle and Roger Wagner conducted.  Incidental music is provided by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose members show up as extras and townspeople.  The movie was sumptuously shot by William A. Fraker near Baker, Oregon, and Big Bear Lake in California, and it’s long at 158 minutes (more than two and a half hours).  It often feels slow, with excessive drunken roistering by Rumson.  The collapsing tunnels and town sequence takes too long and is too elaborately staged.  (“Over-produced” is the term Roger Ebert used.)  The central conflict, with the evolution of Elizabeth’s domestic arrangements, does not feel all that organic or convincing.  For a fan of westerns, the principal interest in this is as a curiosity, to watch Eastwood and Marvin, both normally excellent actors, out of their element in a musical.  Although he appears much older in the film, Marvin was in fact only six years older than Eastwood at the time.  Marvin’s version of “Wand’rin’ Star” rose to No. 1 on the charts in the U.K., strangely enough.

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Relics of another era:  A poster by psychedelic master Peter Max; and a Swedish poster.

Lee Marvin was set to star in The Wild Bunch, but Paramount offered him $1 million plus a percentage to star in this one instead.  Apparently Josh Logan found Lee Marvin’s drunken roistering excessive as well, especially that not captured on film.  Unlike normal film practices, the liquids Marvin consumed on film were mostly actual liquor.  “Not since Attila the Hun swept across Europe, leaving five hundred years of total blackness, has there been a man like Lee Marvin,” according to Logan.

For another western comedy that starts with the discovery of gold in a grave, see Support Your Local Sheriff (also 1969).

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Hangman’s Knot

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 11, 2014

Hangman’s Knot—Randolph Scott, Donna Reed, Lee Marvin, Claude Jarman, Jr., Frank Faylen, Ray Teal, Guinn Williams, Jeanette Nolan, Richard Denning, Clem Bevans (1952; Dir: Roy Huggins)

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A Civil War Confederates-after-Yankee-gold film, and one of Randolph Scott’s best from his pre-Boetticher period.  (Note that the producers here are Scott and Harry Joe Brown—later the combined “Ranown” of the Boetticher-Scott films.  At this point they still needed to find a reliable director and writer for their team, although Roy Huggins does well in both those roles here.)

Eight Confederate soldiers from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia are in Nevada, led by Major Matt Stewart (Randolph Scott).  As the movie starts, they’re planning to steal a shipment of Union gold to save their all-but-defeated southern cause.  They waste no time in carrying out that plan, killing the Yankee soldiers and taking the $250,000 in gold the Yankees are transporting.  Unknown to them, however, the Civil War has ended a month before the attack, and they just hadn’t heard about it.  Now they’ve killed a bunch of Union Nevada volunteers, are in possession of a lot of gold in the middle of hostile territory, and are liable to be hung when they get caught.  The five survivors of the raid agree to try to get back south with the gold and perhaps split it up.  Stewart doesn’t want to become an outlaw, but Rolph Bainter (Lee Marvin in one of his first significant movie roles) wouldn’t mind at all.

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Capturing the gold wagon is only the start.

They can trust no one, and Rolph impulsively kills Capt. Peterson, their contact who he thinks has been holding out information on them and plans to take the gold for himself.  They take Peterson’s medicine wagon with Stewart driving.  When they encounter a posse, Stewart tells them the Confederates have already been captured in a town behind them, and they move on.

That’s fine until the wagon is ruined in an accident.  The Confederates flag down a stagecoach and take it over.  The two passengers inside are Molly Hull (Donna Reed), a former Union nurse, and her fiancé Lee Kemper (Richard Denning), a cattle trader who is not all he seems.  They all take refuge in a stage line way station in a rocky mountain pass and are trapped there by the posse of “deputies” (read: gold-hungry drifters) led by Quincey (Ray Teal).  It’s pretty clear that they intend to kill the remaining Confederates and anybody else in the station and take the gold for themselves.  They capture Cass Browne (Frank Faylen), one of Stewart’s men, and drag him nearly to death.

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Stewart (Randolph Scott) drives the getaway stage.

Stewart’s men are now besieged in the way station, with the aging stationmaster Plunkett (Clem Bevans) and his middle-aged daughter Mrs. Margaret Harris (Jeanette Nolan), whose husband was killed at Gettysburg and whose son was in the Union patrol guarding the stolen gold; he’s now dead, obviously.  Molly helps care for a badly wounded Confederate while the others try to figure out how they’re going to escape.  Stewart, under the guise of trying to make a deal, plants the seed with the posse that the gold is back where they left the medicine wagon.

After taking their captives’ word not to yell out, the Confederates try to escape through the back door.  But Lee breaks his word, and Stewart’s men are forced back inside.  In exchange for two bars of gold, Lee gives Stewart a token that he says will enable them to get horses, supplies and passage from the local Paiute Indians.  Molly isn’t really his fiancée, but now she’s even more disgusted with him.  Both Stewart and Rolph have eyes for Molly, but Stewart is much more gentlemanly in his approach, as we would expect from Randolph Scott.

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Rolph (Lee Marvin) finds his brand of charm doesn’t work on Molly (Donna Reed), or on Stewart (Randolph Scott), either.

At one point, the “deputies” put a noose around Cass Browne’s neck, and Stewart uses dynamite for a distraction to rescue him. (Anachronism alert:  Dynamite wasn’t patented until 1867 and was not used during the Civil War.)  Some backstory emerges on young trooper Jamie Groves (Claude Jarman, Jr.):  he watched his family killed and their farm burned by Sherman’s men in Georgia, and, although he was in the raiding party after the Yankee gold, he’s never shot any one during his brief military service.  Rolph tries to seduce/attack Molly, until Stewart pulls him off. They fight, and Rolph, when he’s losing, tries to shoot an unarmed Stewart.  Jamie shoots Rolph—the first man he has ever shot.  Now they’ve lost one of their best (but most unscrupulous) fighters.

The “deputies” now try a short tunnel under the station’s floorboards, but that doesn’t work.  The second night they set fire to the station, just before a brief downpour cuts visibility.  The first out the door is Lee, who is shot down while trying to make a deal.  Taking what they can of the gold, the three remaining Confederates make a break for it.  Some of the deputies leave to hunt for the gold supposedly left by the medicine wagon; Quincey shoots Smitty (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) and is shot and then dragged himself.  Cass Browne is shot while trying to get to the posse’s horses, but he gets another posse member.

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The way station falls in flames.  From left to right:  Claude Jarman, Jr., Randolph Scott, Jeanette Nolan, Clem Bevans, Richard Denning, Donna Reed and Frank Faylen.

Finally, it’s only Stewart and Jamie left.  Now that they could actually get away with it, they choose to leave the gold at the station for Molly to turn in.  Plunkett and Margaret give them a couple of stagecoach horses for their escape and offer Jamie a place with them if he wants to come back.  Stewart and Molly make plans to reunite, too.

The film is very well-cast, and the writing (by director Roy Huggins) is very good.  Randolph Scott looks good in his dark clothing, light-colored neckerchief and worn leather jacket.  That leather jacket is one of the trademarks of Scott’s later career, like his dark palomino horse Stardust; look for him wearing it in many of his movies from this period, including Ten Wanted Men and Ride the High Country (his last film).  Marvin is very effective as a villain in an early screen role, and even Claude Jarman, Jr., known principally as a child actor in The Yearling, does well with his small part, in one of his last significant movies.  All the Confederates seem well-defined and distinct, with their own personalities, and some of the posse as well.  This is a small gem, one of the best of Randolph Scott’s pre-Boetticher years. This is rare for a movie from the early 1950s in that it allows Stewart and Jamie, at least, to get away without having to surrender to the authorities, if not with their loot intact.

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Molly and Stewart, finally together, featuring Randolph Scott in his trademark jacket..

The action is good, since the stunts were overseen by second-unit director Yakima Canutt.  The stunt double for Scott during his fight scenes with Lee Marvin is a little too obvious.  Writer-director Roy Huggins never directed another movie but took his talents to television, with Maverick, Cheyenne, The Fugitive and eventually The Rockford Files.  Shot in the Alabama Hills at Lone Pine, in color, at just 81 minutes.

For other Confederates-after-Yankee-gold westerns, see Virginia City (1940) with Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott, Westbound (1959), also with Randolph Scott, and The Black Dakotas (1954).  Even Rio Lobo (1970), Howard Hawks’ last movie, may fit into that category, although it’s not a very good film.  For more Lee Marvin as a bad guy, see him in Seven Men From Now (1956), again with Randolph Scott, in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), with Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan, and The Comancheros (1961), with John Wayne, before he gets to his ultimate villain role:  as Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

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Gun Fury

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 30, 2014

Gun Fury—Rock Hudson, Donna Reed, Philip Carey, Leo Gordon, Pat Hogan, Roberta Haynes, Lee Marvin, Neville Brand (1953; Dir: Raoul Walsh)

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Three of the principal characters in this western from the early 1950s are still wallowing in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ben Warren (Rock Hudson in an early starring role) fought for the Union, has had more than enough killing and now wants only to marry his fiancée Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) and live on his large California ranch.  He doesn’t even wear a gun any more.  Jennifer is from Atlanta and is anxious to start a new life where the the desolation of Sherman’s March is not remembered.  And Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) is an embittered former Confederate, now an outlaw in the southwest.

As the film starts, Jennifer is on a stage carrying a large amount of gold and two former Southern gentlemen, along with a cavalry escort.  They stop in Haynesville, Arizona Territory, where Jennifer is meeting her future husband Ben.  He joins the stage passengers, and after it takes off Ben and Jennifer discover that the two Southerners are the noted outlaws Frank Slayton and Jess Morgan (Leo Gordon), and their new cavalry escort are Slayton’s men.  They rob the stage and think they’ve killed Warren, and Slayton abducts Jennifer, for whom he has developed a fascination.

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Strangers on a stagecoach:  Slayton (Phil Carey), Morgan (Leo Gordon), Warren (Rock Hudson), Ballard (Donna Reed), and a real stranger.

Slayton and Morgan have a falling out over the abduction, and Slayton leaves Morgan tied to a corral post for the buzzards.  Meanwhile, Warren discovers he isn’t really dead and takes one of the stagecoach horses in pursuit.  He releases Morgan, and they join forces to pursue Slayton for vengeance and to rescue Jennifer.  They are joined by an Indian Johash (Pat Hogan), whose sister was also taken by Slayton’s men in an earlier raid on Taos.

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Frank Slayton (Phil Carey) leaves Jess Morgan (Leo Gordon) to die.

As Slayton and his men get closer to the Mexican border, Morgan and Warren find a couple of his men buying supplies in a town and kill one of them.  Now Slayton knows they are following.  He stops by a village notable for its cantina and Mexican ladies of easy virtue, where Slayton has a girl Estella Morales (Roberta Haynes).  He has Jennifer cleaned up and has his way with her, although the camera doesn’t show that very explicitly.  Estella is enraged at being abandoned so casually.  Slayton makes a deal with Warren and Burgess: he’ll trade Jennifer back to Warren in exchange for Burgess.  Although Warren isn’t minded to make that trade, not trusting Slayton in the slightest, Burgess insists he can take Slayton.  It doesn’t work, and Burgess is killed.

Now it’s Warren and Johash against Slayton and the remainder of his band of outlaws.  Estella tries to get Slayton and is killed for her pains.  It comes finally, as we knew it would, to former pacifist Warren and the ruthless outlaw Slayton.  Just when it looks like Slayton has the advantage, it turns out he has forgotten Johash, and Slayton ends with a knife in his back.  Warren and Jennifer ride off to their California ranch.

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Jennifer Ballard (Donna Reed) is fit to be tied; Ben Warren (Rock Hudson) seeks vengeance.

This is one of three movies from 1953 in which director Raoul Walsh used his new discovery Rock Hudson. (The Lawless Breed and Sea Devils are the other two.)  None of them are particularly memorable.  Like Hondo, this film was made in the 3-D process that was all the rage that year, and the camerawork, especially in the second half, shows the usual evidence of that in the angles of thrown objects, striking rattlesnakes and such.  Carey as the sociopathic outlaw Slayton and Leo Gordon as the vengeful Jess Burgess give the best performances in the cast.  Leo Gordon was just breaking into movies, the same year that he played Ed Lowe (Geraldine Page’s despicable husband, shot by John Wayne) in Hondo.

Donna Reed is beautiful but nothing special as Jennifer (she’s more notable in Hangman’s Knot and Backlash later in the decade, for example), and Rock Hudson was never a dazzling actor, but he was more wooden here than he would be later in his career.  Lee Marvin and Neville Brand have early roles as members of Slayton’s gang, but they have neither enough lines nor enough camera time to distinguish themselves here.  Roberta Haynes is modestly interesting in a limited role as Mexican spitfire Estella, but one does feel that actual Mexican Katy Jurado could have done it better, and that the smoldering Linda Darnell did do it better in My Darling Clementine.

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The script by Irving Wallace and Roy Huggins is fine, based on Kathleen George’s novel Ten Against Caesar.  Warren has interesting exchanges with lawmen and townsfolk of the small towns he and Burgess go through in their pursuit, as he tries without success to get some help.  The title of the movie doesn’t mean anything in particular, which was common enough with westerns of that era.  One does expect better camera work from the experienced director Walsh; camera placement and angles here often telegraph what’s coming.  The one-eyed Walsh could not himself see the 3-D results of his work, but he had done better westerns—Colorado Territory, for example.  Shot on location in Sedona, Arizona.  83 minutes.

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The Spikes Gang

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 22, 2014

The Spikes Gang—Lee Marvin, Gary Grimes, Ron Howard, Charlie Martin Smith, Noah Beery, Jr., Arthur Hunnicutt (1974; Dir:  Richard Fleischer)

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Both a coming-of-age and a coming-of-death movie (perhaps similar to The Shootist in that regard, also with Ron Howard).  Lee Marvin is Harry Spikes, outlaw mentor to young friends Wil (Gary Grimes), Les (Ron Howard) and Tod (Charlie Martin Smith).  After helping the wounded Spikes when they first encounter him, the young men have left home and bungled a bank robbery when they cross paths with Spikes again.  He apparently takes a liking to them.  They need considerable mentoring in simple survival out in the world, and Spikes leads them into a course in advanced bank robbery as well. 

In the end, they all die in a burst of 1970s iconoclasm, with Wil and Spikes killing each other in a shootout after Spikes turns bounty hunter and betrays the youngsters.  Marvin is effective as always (with a really good turn-of-the-century mustache), and the three young men are good as well.  There’s some good writing, but ultimately there’s also some slow pacing and a lot of nihilism here.

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Three-fourths of the gang:  Ron Howard, Lee Marvin and Gary Grimes.

Available on DVD as of 2011.  As with other movies from the early 1970s, the blood looks a lot like paint.  There’s some good writing in the dialogue, although the plot is a downer (kind of like The Culpepper Cattle Co. from the same era, also starring Grimes, who, for a brief period in the early 1970s specialized in coming-of-age movies).  There a tone of unspoken regret, perhaps repentance, in the end.  The film is obviously influenced by The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde of a few years earlier.  Arthur Hunnicutt, in his last film, and Noah Beery, Jr., are good in brief roles.  Shot in Spain.

 

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The Comancheros

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 4, 2014

The Comancheros—John Wayne, Stuart Whitman, Ina Balin, Lee Marvin, Bruce Cabot, Michael Ansara, Jack Elam, Edgar Buchanan, Nehemiah Persoff, Patrick Wayne (1961; Dir:  Michael Curtiz, John Wayne [unaccredited])

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It is 1840.  In Louisiana, Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) is involved in a duel with an unscrupulous opponent, whom he kills.  The dead man is the son of a judge, so a warrant is issued for Regret’s arrest.  He prudently leaves, and on a gambling boat meets Pilar Graile (Ina Balin), a wealthy and assertive young woman with whom he shares a night.  In Galveston the next morning, however, Pilar is nowhere to be found, and Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne) arrests him on the Louisiana warrant.

As they head toward Ranger headquarters, Regret is educated about Texas, its geography and a bit of widower Cutter’s history.  They come upon a ranch that has been hit by a Comanche raiding party, and as they finish burying the victims Regret bashes Cutter with a shovel and disappears.

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The chagrined Cutter proceeds to Ranger headquarters, where Major Henry (Bruce Cabot) shows him prisoner Ed McBain (Guinn Williams in his last film), apprehended with a wagonload of rifles he intended to sell to the Comanches.    Henry persuades Cutter to take McBain’s place and head for a planned rendezvous in Sweetwater with a Comanchero connection.

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The connection in Sweetwater is Tully Crow (Lee Marvin), a partially scalped, heavy-drinking hardcase.  Crow and the faux-McBain carouse noisily and drift into a poker game, where one of the players is Paul Regret.  He does not give Cutter away, and during the game Cutter wins consistently and Crow gets progressively surlier.  As Cutter takes up his winnings and prepares to leave, Crow calls him out and draws on him.  Cutter wins, but it leaves him without a Comanchero connection.  They head for Ranger headquarters, but encounter  Comanche and Comanchero raiders at a ranch with Cutter friends.  Regret saves the day by escaping to get the Rangers back, and the raiders are driven off. 

Regret is now a Ranger friend, having proved himself.  On their way back to headquarters Cutter and Regret stop at the ranch of a young widow Cutter knows to take her into town.  The interlude gives Cutter a little additional humanity but doesn’t really go anywhere.  The Rangers provide Cutter with a feathered Indian lance that supposedly will give them safe conduct in Comanche country.  They are followed by young Ranger Tobe (Patrick Wayne), who is supposed to keep an eye on them from a distance.  He is killed, however, presumably to demonstrate that this is serious business despite how easily Cutter and Regret will make their own escape.

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They are accepted by the Comanches, who take them to Comanchero headquarters, where they are strung up because Amelung (Michael Ansara) recognizes Cutter from when he was arresting Regret.  However, Pilar appears and is the daughter of the head Comanchero.  She has them cut down and invited to dinner, but they are on thin ice.  They meet her crippled father (Nehemiah Persoff), and it turns out that of all the forces and loyalties in play, true love is strongest (not all that convincingly).  They make a run for it in a wagon with Pilar and her father, with both Comanches and Comancheros in hot pursuit.  The wagon overturns in the chase, Pilar’s father is killed, and the Ranger company arrives just in time to rescue them.

At the end Cutter willingly gives up his prisoner and Regret and Pilar head for Mexico.  The Comanchero ring has been broken.

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Based on a novel by Paul Wellman, the screenplay was originally penned by experienced writer Clair Huffaker.  But the studio ordered it worked over by James Edward Grant, a favorite of Wayne’s, and the seams show.  They may both have been good writers, but at several points the plot doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, beginning with Regret’s arrest.  The original director was Michael Curtiz, but he had health problems and the movie was finished with the uncredited Wayne acting as director.  Curtiz died of cancer shortly after the film was finished.

In terms of production design, although the film is set in Texas in 1840, it looks the same as every other John Wayne movie after The Searchers, whether set in 1840, 1898 or 1909, with anachronistic weapons and clothing.  Some of the references to Fort Sill and the prison at Yuma are off, since neither existed until at least twenty years later.  When Cutter steps into the McBain role, he wears a tall hat and long duster for no good reason, and they look silly on him.  Lee Marvin’s energetic malevolence as Tully Crow is more threatening than all the Comanches and Comancheros in the rest of the movie, but his role is much too brief. 

A strong point is the music by Elmer Bernstein, with a stirring theme second only to Bernstein’s work on The Magnificent Seven.  Cinematography is by the experienced William Clothier.  Shot near Moab, Utah.  In general, the movie is fun if you don’t require too much consistency or reasonableness in your plots.  Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called the film “so studiously wild and woolly it turns out to be good fun”; according to Crowther, “[t]here’s not a moment of seriousness in it, not a detail that isn’t performed with a surge of exaggeration, not a character that is credible.”

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Three years later Stuart Whitman starred in Rio Conchos, also written by Clair Huffaker, which has many similarities to the plot here but is a better movie.  By setting it after the Civil War, some of the anachronisms of this movie are avoided.  Among John Wayne films of this period, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, El Dorado, The War Wagon and True Grit are all better.  But several others are worse, too.

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Great Performances in Westerns, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 3, 2013

This is the first of seven posts focusing on individual actors who gave excellent performances in westerns, regardless of whether the entire movie was excellent.  The list is quite selective; there are a lot of really good performances that don’t show up here.  It is intended to point to the very best, in no particular order.  The list is also open for additions, but you should wait until the completion of the series to make sure your suggestion isn’t already on the list.  Some (e.g., Lee Marvin, John Wayne) are on the list for multiple roles.

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Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett in The Alamo

Especially for baby boomers, it’s hard to get past the coonskin-capped caricature of Tennessee’s David Crockett rooted in Fess Parker’s work for Disney in the 1950s.  Thornton does the best job on film in portraying a real Crockett—a frontier personality who seems like he could have been a successful politician, with both personal magnetism and some sensitivity.  One scene that lingers in the mind is Crockett at twilight, playing a fiddle on the walls of the Alamo as a Tennessee counterpoint to the Mexican deguello (the cut-throat bugle call), with death looming two or three hundred yards out.  Another is wordless, as he places cocked pistols in the hands of a Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) almost too weak to hold them, prostrate with typhoid.  Best of all, he doesn’t wear a coonskin cap.  With his Arkansas accent, Thornton would be a natural for westerns, if there were more being made.  He did show up effectively in a bit part in Tombstone, as a violent gambler backed down by Wyatt Earp.  This recounting of the Alamo story isn’t among the very greatest westerns, but it is the most accurate historically and it’s worth watching for Thornton’s performance.  

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Thomas Haden Church as Tom Harte in Broken Trail

Church uses his distinctive voice and a stony face marvelously in his role as Tom Harte, lifelong ne’er-do-well cowboy and nephew to Robert Duvall’s Print Ritter.  Initially Harte is seemingly motivated by resentment that his inheritance has gone to his mother’s brother, but he nevertheless develops as a stand-up guy whose flinty resolve is the bedrock quality that ultimately saves everybody.  He’s relied on at key points in the plot’s backbone story, and he comes through believably.  His initial judgment is schooled at times by Ritter, and he rises to that tutelage.  He’s helped by good production design that makes him look authentic.  Church is another actor who seems made for westerns but will never get the opportunity to make many.  In some ways here he’s reminiscent of Lee Marvin, although he successfully plays lighter roles elsewhere (see Sideways, for example) as well.  This made-for-television miniseries is highly re-watchable, with several excellent performances (Duvall, Greta Scacchi, Scott Cooper and others) in addition to Church’s.  He’s probably the most historically-accurate Billy Clanton on film in Tombstone.

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Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone

Doc Holliday is the showiest role for an actor in the Wyatt Earp story, retold many times.  Earlier versions were played by the physically robust Victor Mature and Kirk Douglas, as well as by excellent character actor Jason Robards.  Kilmer probably does it better than anyone (with the possible exception of Dennis Quaid), being believably tubercular and hair-trigger dangerous, yet with an educated intelligence behind it all.  A lovely performance, one of the best in a western in recent memory.  His lines “I’m your huckleberry” and “You’re a daisy if you do” have continuing resonance for their whimsical quality with an underlying edge and implicit threat.  But also look at his cameo as a not-terribly-effective cavalry captain in The Missing.  Kilmer is the only actor to have played both Doc Holliday (here) and Wyatt Earp (Wyatt Earp’s Revenge, 2012).

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Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone

A lesser actor would have been overshadowed by Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in this version of the Earp story.  Russell was not only convincing in a role that can be quite dour (see Costner’s version, as well as Burt Lancaster’s and James Garner’s) because it deals with a relentless quest for vengeance, but he also seems more balanced.  And physically he bears an extraordinary resemblance to one of the most famous photographs of Earp.  On top of that he’s a terrific actor, believable in action and motivation and in his relationship with Holliday.  We believe him when he’s restraining violence and when he isn’t.  He makes an excellent center for the most successful retelling of the Earp story since the 1940s.  For a late-career resurgence in westerns, see him in Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight (both in late 2015).

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Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp

Quaid’s performance is often overlooked because of Kilmer’s dazzling performance in the same role a year earlier and because the Kasdan-Costner version of the story was kind of a cinematic clunker.  Quaid nevertheless is very convincing as the tubercular dentist and killer.  He lost so much weight for the role that it left new lines in his face, and Holliday’s innate meanness showed through in Quaid’s performance.  That’s unusual for an actor whose most bankable characteristic is his devil-may-care grin.  Although Holliday has been played by some superb actors, Quaid and Kilmer are the best in the role so far.

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Lee Marvin as Masters in Seven Men From Now, Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rico Fardan in The Professionals and dual roles (Kid Shelleen and Tim Strawn) in Cat Ballou

Marvin and Richard Boone were probably the best villains in the history of westerns, and they were both very versatile actors.  Marvin had an implacable quality that served him well in various roles, especially in (but not limited to) the roles listed here:

  • The most effective of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns featured an ambiguous bad guy, one whose relationship with Scott’s character could possibly go in different directions.  That was true of the first such movie, Seven Men From Now.  Masters had once been put in jail by Scott’s Ben Stride and they are wary of each other, but Marvin’s capacity for menace increases as the movie goes along and provides for an excellent denouement.  In particular, look at the claustrophobic scene in the back of a wagon at night in the rain, when Masters starts a story that strips two of the other characters bare psychologically until Stride kicks him back out into rain.
  • Marvin’s menace is unmitigated in his role as the villain in the title in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  The movie is full of remarkable performances (John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Woody Strode), but Marvin’s palpable bad-guy-ness makes it all work.  He’s one of the easiest-to-hate villains ever in a western, with a psychotic edge to his performance here.  (For a variation on this role, see him in The Comancheros where, in a brief part, he seems considerably worse than the movie’s ostensible real bad guys.)
  • Marvin won his Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his dual role in Cat Ballou as drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen and his noseless, black-clad assassin brother Tim Strawn.  There is a memorable photographic still from this performance of the inebriated Shelleen on his apparently drunk horse, both of them leaning against the side of a building, trying to stay upright.
  • Marvin could also do convincing good guys, as in his performance as Rico Fardan in The Professionals.  Here he principally projects control, hardness and competence (as he would later in The Dirty Dozen), with an overlay of elusive principle.  He’s the team leader, and although the movie’s an ensemble success, that’s in large part because Marvin is so believable as Fardan.  Marvin’s military background (he had been a Marine) shows through to advantage.  He could also be on this list for his performance in the title role in 1970’s Monte Walsh.

 BooneRioConchos As Lassiter in Rio Conchos.

Richard Boone as Frank Usher in The Tall T and as Major Jim Lassiter in Rio Conchos

Like Lee Marvin, Richard Boone is best remembered for the villains he played.  Like Marvin, Boone had a distinctive voice which he used to considerable advantage.  He could play silkier than Marvin and was very good at inhabiting the margins of villainy in different ways.

  • In Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, Boone as Frank Usher develops a strange relationship with Randolph Scott’s flinty Brennan.  He’s never anything other than bad, the mastermind of murders, kidnapping and robbery with two henchmen he thinks are below him.  But there’s a sense that he could have been something else, that he shares some dreams and aspirations with Brennan.  Some of that’s in the writing, which is quite spare.  But mostly it’s in Boone’s performance.  For a couple of other great Boone villains, see Hombre and Big Jake.  For earlier Boone bad guys in slighter movies, see Ten Wanted Men and Robbers’ Roost.
  • Major Jim Lassiter is an embittered, alcoholic Confederate veteran who hunts Apaches in revenge for their killing of his wife and son.  He is by far the most interesting character in the expeditionary ensemble in Rio Conchos.  It’s one of his rare opportunities to play an ambiguous character on the right side, and he carries the movie.  For work with some similarities (i.e., Boone playing parts other than overtly bad guys), see A Thunder of Drums and his work as the enigmatic Paladin in television’s Have Gun Will Travel.

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Monte Walsh

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 28, 2013

Monte Walsh—Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, Mitchell Ryan, Jeanne Moreau, Jim Davis, Allyn Ann McLerie, Bo Hopkins (1970; Dir:  William A. Fraker)

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This excellent but slow-moving film may be the best pure end-of-an era western ever made.  The emotional focus is so much on various cowboys, especially the title character and his best friend Chet Rollins, trying to come to terms with the fact that the cowboy way of life is disappearing.  

In the initial scene, Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Rollins (Jack Palance) are finishing up their winter spent at a line shack.  On their way in to the town of Harmony, Arizona, they spy a wolf and are about to shoot it for the rancher’s bounty when Walsh launches into a long tale of Big Joe Abernathy, who used to wrestle wolves.  After a few minutes of this, Rollins loses patience, grabs the gun from Walsh and shoots the wolf himself.  Upon arrival in town, they find that the harsh winter (maybe the winter of 1888-89?) has finished off most of the ranches in the area, including the one they work for.  A company known only as “Consolidated” and referred to by the cowboys as “accountants,” has acquired several of the now-defunct ranches and is experimenting with having Cal Brennan, former owner of one spread, manage their ranch holdings.  He hires Walsh and Rollins for the new ranch, the Slash Y.

montewalsh-marvin-palance Mulling over the prospects.

At the Slash Y, we meet the remaining cowboys, getting to know them, getting a feel for their competence at this life, and seeing how each of them deals with the approaching end of their way of life.  The most notable of them is Shorty Austin (Mitchell Ryan), the designated bronc tamer who also fancies himself a good hand with a gun—another skill with diminishing usefulness.  Walsh has a long-term relationship with a local prostitute, Martine Bernard (Jeanne Moreau), who lives in a one-room cabin.  We know their relationship is serious because, in addition to the time taken to show their mutual regard and affection in the limited time they spend together, Walsh never pays her for that time.  Chet is also developing a relationship with Mary Eagle (Allyn Ann McLerie), a widow who owns the local hardware store.  Three of the Slash Y cowboys are let go, and they turn to robbing banks when no cowboy work is available.  Most of the horses are sold, and Shorty is also let go.  Rollins decides to marry Mary Eagle and take up the hardware trade.  As Chet puts it, “Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever.”  Mulling over his dubious future after the wedding, Walsh finds Martine working as a waitress in a bar/restaurant forty miles away.  They make a tentative arrangement to marry, but leave the date indefinite.  Martine has a cough, but says it is nothing. 

Meanwhile, the three former Slash Y cowboys are in a bar in Harmony during a rainstorm.  A stranger in a yellow slicker gets the drop on one of them, and Shorty, also at the bar, shoots him.  Peeling off the slicker, they find a marshal’s badge on the stranger, and Shorty goes on the run.  In due course the outlaws find themselves in Rollins’ hardware store, and the more impetuous of them decides to rob it.  When Rollins tries to talk Shorty out of the outlaw life, Shorty lets him have it with a shotgun.

monte-walsh-marvin-moreau Walsh and Martine.

Walsh can’t bring himself to attend the funeral, because then he’d have to acknowledge that Rollins is really dead.  Consolidated is shutting down the ranching operations at the Slash Y.  Walsh takes out after Shorty.  At one stop he hears that Martine is dying (like his way of life, and Chet, and the Slash Y), and he seeks her out.  He’s too late; she’s already dead by the time he arrives.  As he sits by her side, Shorty also arrives in town.  In an extended and unromantic shootout in an abattoir, Walsh is shot but he gets Shorty, too.

The final scene mirrors the movie’s first:  Walsh is on the trail and, on sighting a wolf, dismounts and takes out his rifle.  While he sights to shoot, he starts telling his horse the story of Big Joe Abernathy who used to wrestle wolves.  In the end, he can’t shoot.  The wolf is too much like him—an old-timer with an obsolete occupation whose future is limited.  As he rides away he continues telling his horse the interminable story of Big Joe.

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The pacing of the film is elegiac.  The signature line, spoken from Palance to Marvin:  “Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever.”  The leads, Marvin (especially) and Palance, are superb; there’s good chemistry and balance between them.  They have a natural gravitas and substance that makes their troubles seem real and their characters substantial.  Marvin’s hat has almost as much character as he does.  Jeanne Moreau, in one of her rare U.S.-made movies, is quietly appealing as Martine, the doomed prostitute, although she is much younger than Marvin.

Other elements of the film are excellent as well.  It’s based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, who also wrote the story for Shane.  The film is beautifully shot, befitting a movie directed by a well-known cinematographer who only directed four films (William A. Fraker).  The score by John Barry is also very good, even the ironic theme song “The Good Times Are Comin’,” sung well by Cass Elliott.  It was hard to see this film for a long time because, strangely, it was not available on DVD until Nov. 2010.  In 2003, Australian Simon Wincer (Lonesome Dove, Quigley Down Under) directed a made-for-television remake with Tom Selleck in the title role.  It’s pretty good, but the original is better.  For another excellent movie made two years earlier with similar themes, see Will Penny with Charlton Heston.      

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Seven Men from Now

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 14, 2013

Seven Men from Now—Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin, Gail Russell, Don Barry, Walter Reed, John Larch (1956; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

In the opening scene, former sheriff Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) enters a cave from a driving rain storm and approaches the campfire of two strangers.  They’re a little edgy, and they start talking about a recent killing in the town of Silver Springs.  Stride sits at the fire and takes a cup of coffee.  One of the two asks Stride, “Did they catch the ones who done it?”  “Two of ‘em,” responds Stride, carefully watching the others.   They draw and Stride gets them both.  We don’t know why Stride was the one hunting them, but he walked right in and did it fair and square.  And according to the title there are five more to come.

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Randolph Scott as Ben Stride, looking for seven men.

On his way the next morning Stride crosses trails with the Greers, an eastern couple whose wagon is stuck in mud.  He helps them pull out and guides them to a deserted stage stop, where they encounter Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and Clete (Don Barry).  Masters is somebody Stride once put in jail, and who claims not to have been involved in the robbery in Silver Springs, although he’s interested in the stolen gold.  For a while the four travel together, and they rescue a man pursued by Apaches, only for Masters to kill him moments later as the rescued man tries to shoot Stride in the back.  Three of seven down; four more to go.

Masters has eyes for Annie Greer (Gail Russell), whose husband John (Walter Reed) is garrulous, unskilled in the ways of the west and perhaps weak.  Masters pushes John Greer in a remarkable scene in a wagon in the rain just telling stories, until Stride makes Masters leave.

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Masters (Lee Marvin) telling tales in the rain.

It turns out Stride is a widower; it was his wife working in the Wells Fargo office who was killed in Silver Springs.  Stride lost the last election for sheriff, and when he declined to take a job as deputy, his wife had to work.  He’s now attracted to Annie Greer, too, but she’s married and Stride has a strict moral code.  Stride and Masters are both heading for Flora Vista, which they think is the likely point for whoever took the Wells Fargo gold to try to get it into Mexico.  The Greers are going there to catch a trail west to California.

Masters reaches Flora Vista first after leaving the slower-moving Greers, and there he encounters Payte Bodeen (John Larch), the leader of the gang that planned and committed the robbery and murder.  Masters tells them Stride is on his way, and two of the gang are dispatched to intercept Stride in the desert before he gets to Flora Vista.  Stride gets them both, but injures his leg and loses his horse in doing so.  The Greers, following along behind in their wagon, find him and patch him up as well as they can.  John Greer admits that he had unknowingly agreed to take the stolen Wells Fargo box to Flora Vista, and he leaves it in the desert with Stride.  Stride figures it will draw the remaining killers to him.

He’s right, and it also draws Masters and Clete.  The final shootout for the gold is between Stride and Masters, and it’s great.  By the end of the movie, John Greer is also dead, more bravely than one might have expected, and there is the suggestion that Stride and Annie Greer might get together.  But they might not, too.  That makes this movie one of only two (along with The Tall T) of the Boetticher westerns where Scott may end up with a romantic interest.

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An injured Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) faces off against Masters (Lee Marvin) in the desert.

The editing of the shooting scenes is very interesting.  Although Stride wins at least two of these, we never actually see him draw and shoot.  We see Masters constantly playing with his guns, drawing them, loading them, twirling them, and he’s clearly fast, dextrous and confident.  Fast as Masters is, Stride is faster, but it’s mostly in our minds.  This is a remarkable contrast to how shootout scenes are shot in later westerns, especially after The Wild Bunch.

Scott plays much the same character in all the Boetticher westerns—capable, taciturn, obsessed with vengeance, sure of himself and that he knows all the rules.  Lee Marvin is one of the two best villains in a Boetticher movie, and although he is an obvious bad guy he’s not without a certain dangerous charm.  The interactions between Scott and Marvin make the movie memorable.  You can also see Scott’s frequent uncredited co-star, his beautiful dark palomino horse Stardust.

The script was written by Burt Kennedy for John Wayne, but Wayne couldn’t take the part of Ben Stride because he was scheduled to be in John Ford’s The Searchers.  However, this one was produced by Wayne’s Batjac Company and was successful enough to start a series for director Boetticher.  The rest were produced by Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown—combining their names in that of their production company, Ranown.

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This is the earliest and one of the best of the westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, all made during a surprisingly brief period in the late 1950s.   “Spare” is one word frequently used to describe the storytelling in them.  They typically don’t have large casts or budgets, and they’re not long, but they work well.  Burt Kennedy wrote this one, as he did the best of these collaborations.  This and the other Boetticher westerns were unavailable for decades, appreciated only by a small cult of fans and, of course, the French.  But you can now find them on DVD, and they’re well worth watching, especially the stronger entries in the series (The Tall T, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station).

 

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 5, 2013

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—John Wayne, James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, Woody Strode, Andy Devine (1962; Dir:  John Ford)

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Director Ford with his two principal stars on set.

Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) return to Shinbone, the western town where he initially made his reputation decades earlier.  As matters slowly develop, they are there for the funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphan (John Wayne).  And the movie goes into an extended flashback, to when Stoddard initially arrived, only to be robbed and badly beaten by a band of stage robbers.  The gang is led by the Liberty Valance of the title, so there is no suspense on the fate that awaits Valance in the course of the film.  The remaining question is who will take care of Valance, since the younger Stoddard doesn’t really seem up to the task.

Stoddard represents the forces of civilization that, as we all know, will ultimately be successful in taming even the West, although the question is in doubt in Shinbone at the start of the movie.  The traditional tools of civilization, law and courts, seem powerless to deal with the brutal, relentless violence of Liberty Valance.  The badly beaten Stoddard is brought to town by Doniphan and his hired hand/servant Pompey (Woody Strode), and given to the care of a family of Swedish immigrants who run a restaurant.  Their daughter is Doniphan’s girlfriend, although he seems slow to do anything to move the relationship along.  Doniphan is comfortable and capable in the west in a way that easterner Stoddard is not.  Having been robbed, Stoddard earns his keep washing dishes in the restaurant, and he starts a school for adults and children and hangs out his shingle at the office of the newspaper (the Shinbone Star) run by Dutton Peabody (Edmund O’Brien). 

valance-atthebar The confrontation builds.

It’s clear that there will have to be a reckoning with Valance, described by Doniphan as “the toughest man south of the Picketwire, except for me.”  (Use of the name of the Picketwire [or Purgatoire] River would seem to place this in southeastern Colorado Territory.  And the talk of impending statehood would put it before 1876, when the Centennial State joined the Union.)  We look forward to seeing Doniphan and Valance shoot it out.  But Stoddard won’t leave town, despite his demonstrated ineptitude with a gun, and, worse, his determination not to use violence but the largely ineffective tools of the law.

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“The next one is right between the eyes.”

That Insistence on staying in Shinbone results in a shootout that leaves Valance dead and makes Stoddard’s reputation.  But in the wrangling over statehood that follows, Stoddard learns that events the night of the shootout were not quite what they seemed, even to him as a participant.  His own career takes off; he marries Hallie and becomes governor and then senator; Tom Doniphan, who seemed much better suited to life in the west at the start of the movie, goes in a different direction–downhill.

The central conflict in this movie is among three, not two, characters:  Valance obviously shouldn’t and doesn’t win; the realist Doniphan deserves to win but doesn’t, entirely.  Stoddard, the face of American populist idealism, comes out on top, as we know from the beginning of the movie.

There’s a fair amount of Capra-esque Grapes-of-Wrath-style frontier populism in this movie, which wouldn’t be palatable without a strong underlying story, excellent main characters and the violence of the confrontations with Valance.  This populist quality is emphasized by the presence of Stewart from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.   The faith in the common man as citizen and voter and the 1940s New Deal-ish black-and-white politics seem naïve now, and maybe they were even in the early 1960s.  It all seems simplistic, with undue reverence for freedom of the press even when that press is in the hands of an alcoholic editor, the scenery-chewing Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien)—a character very reminiscent of the alcoholic Doc Boone, played by Thomas Mitchell in Stagecoach more than twenty years earlier. 

valance-stewart Stoddard contemplates the non-legal way.

Speaking of black and white, it was an interesting choice to film the movie that way in 1962 when color movies had taken over pretty thoroughly.  Half a decade earlier, even the relatively low-budget Boetticher-Scott westerns had been filmed in color, and Ford had been using it since the late 1940s.  It adds to the retro feel—not back to the open west, exactly, but to the 1940s.  Ford still has his visual style with a western, although this one is not set in Monument Valley.  It’s shot largely on a studio back lot at Paramount.  The opening stage robbery and beating takes place on an obvious sound stage, but other times there is great use of expansive western vistas, even with medium shots.

A twist at the end of the movie seems similar in many ways to the ending of an earlier John Ford movie, Fort Apache.  In both, the film ends with the main character (Stewart here, Wayne in Fort Apache) affirming or allowing his support for an erroneous public version of a major historical event, when he knows the truth is different.  As Stoddard recounts the actual truth of long-past events to the current editor of the Shinbone Star, he asks in surprise, “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?”  Scott replies with the signature line for this movie, and perhaps for many other Ford westerns: “No, sir.  This is the West, sir.  When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  By this, director Ford seems to be encouraging a skepticism toward conventional history.

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The closing paradoxes and strongly-developed characters give this film its lasting impact.  John Wayne is at his best, even with his continual use of the word “pilgrim”—more than in any other movie he made.  He smokes frequently on screen, ironic when we know that John Wayne will be dead within two more decades from lung cancer.  In one shot, his exhaled cloud of smoke is used to dissolve to a past scene, a technique that seemed old-fashioned even in 1962.  Stewart is good with his character’s ups and downs, although he sometimes seems a little too hysterical and his halting Stewart-ish mannerisms, especially in speech, can be slightly annoying.  Wayne and Stewart are a little old for the age their characters are supposed to be for most of the movie, and Stewart plays much older than he actually is for the framing story.  O’Brien is over the top as the loquacious newspaper editor, and we see too much of Andy Devine as the ineffectual but supposedly loveable town marshal Link Appleyard; he’s supposed to be the comic relief.  Vera Miles is lovely and plays well in her minor part.

This movie has an all-star cast of villains, too:  Lee Marvin is at his nastiest and most brutish as Liberty Valance, supported by the weaselly and perhaps mentally unstable Floyd (Strother Martin) and that personification of slit-eyed menace, Lee Van Cleef, as Reese.  Valance’s sheer evil, with him always seemingly on the edge of losing control, and a psychotic tendency to try to kill people with his silver-handled whip, make this trio of evildoers more intimidating than their modest numbers would suggest.

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Belgian poster for Liberty Valance, with pictures of Wayne and Stewart clearly taken from other movies.

The title song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David and sung by Gene Pitney, was a hit in the early 1960s, although the hit version does not appear in the film.  Apparently Gene Pitney was not asked to record it until after the film was released.  However, it ranks with Tex Ritter’s “Do Not Forsake Me” in High Noon and Johnny Horton’s theme for North to Alaska.  They’re among the very best western film theme songs with actual singers.

Liberty Valance is John Ford’s last great western, although Ford continued making movies.  It’s a good bookend for the second half of his career, since there are three actors in this who appeared in Stagecoach, the movie that kicked off that career segment:  John Wayne, obviously, Andy Devine and John Carradine (as anti-statehood orator Cassius Starbuckle)—all of them Ford favorites.  This was Wayne’s last film with Ford, although Stewart shows up again as a too-old Wyatt Earp in a strange lnterlude in Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn a couple of years later.

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